If you want a major, blinking-green sign that says “cultural attitudes about marijuana in America are changing rapidly,” you’ve got one: Governor Perry, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made public statements for the first time in favor of decriminalizing pot. As the Austin American-Statesman reports:
“After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade,” Perry said.
There are a few things to note in that quote, so let’s take a moment to unpack it. First, it’s notable that “the war on drugs has failed” has become a politically viable position to take. It’s been true for a long time, most people who don’t, say, own stock in private prisons would agree—but the fact that you can hear those words coming out of the mouths of folks like Rick Perry and Chris Christie, rather than people like The Wire creator David Simon, is significant.
It’s also worth noting that the governor’s statement is centered around the people who’ve been sent to prison for drugs. Texas Republicans have frequently, and for a long time, been much smarter and more progressive on criminal justice issues than their stereotype, at least among people who disagree with them politically on most other topics, would believe. It’s refreshing to see that invoked at the highest levels in the state. Perry’s long talked out of both sides of his mouth on the issue, offering support for the right of other states to pursue decriminalization and even legalization under the Tenth Amendment, while insisting that in Texas, “we can win the war on drugs.” Suggesting that it’s not worth the fight, speaking from a place of compassion, and acknowledging the lives destroyed by that war, are a significant shift in his rhetoric.
But perhaps the biggest indication that a seismic shift might be happening is that this is coming from Perry at all right now. He’s currently very much at a crossroads in his political career, as a lame duck governor with obvious national ambitions. The fact that as he lays the seeds for what may well end up being a 2016 presidential campaign, he’s going on the record speaking about an issue that’s long been as controversial as marijuana decriminalization, is significant. An “even the long-time governor of a deeply red state supports it” framework for ending the war on drugs creates a lot of space for the rest of the politicians in the country, and it means that it’s something that will allow for answers a lot more diverse than the ones that came up the last time the issue was publicly debated by Republican politicians.
The fact that Perry made this statement in the same week that President Obama gave an extensive interview to the New Yorker that showcased an “evolving” position on marijuana legalization—and in which the Justice Department indicated that it intended to allow money from legalized drug sales in Colorado and Washington to be deposited into FDIC-insured banks—all adds up to a pretty good week for proponents of ending the war on drugs. There’s still a lot of room to grow, of course: Perry’s talk about “decriminalization” is different from talk about legalization (though if Perry did decide to pursue a full legalization policy, fans of the Texans and Cowboys might be pleased), and Obama’s New Yorker interview also included a few statements that left him room to walk back his “evolved” view. Still, as early steps toward a less destructive drug policy in this country go, this is encouraging.
(AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)